Over the course of a career, firefighters are relentlessly exposed to a hellish mix of toxins. These exposures put firefighters at a substantially greater risk of getting cancer — a reality documented in more than 80 peer-reviewed medical studies. Law enforcement officers – regularly exposed to toxins and often without breathing apparatus – pay a similarly heavy price.
Sacrificing your life to slow-motion poisoning from job-related exposure isn’t as dramatic as dying in a fiery instant, but for firefighters and police officers, it is every bit as noble and heroic.
For their families, time is especially important. Every day spent fighting for life is also another day with the family … another day with the hope of a cure. While they fight, stricken officers have the comfort of knowing that, should they die, their survivors will enjoy a modest safeguard in the form of workers’ comp death benefits.
But, believe it or not, those safeguards come with an expiration date.
Because of a provision created in 1913, a firefighter or police officer stricken with job-related diseases must die within 240 weeks of his or her diagnosis in order for survivors to qualify for the death benefit. If a stricken officer lives one day longer than 240 weeks, their spouses and children lose out.
Closing this cruel loophole is at the heart of Assembly Bill 1373, Assembly Speaker John Perez’s measure that won overwhelming bipartisan approval in the Legislature last week. AB 1373 narrowly modifies this 100-year-old “death clock”, extending the cutoff to 480 weeks while ensuring that the benefit goes to immediate dependents.
Sadly, a lot of active firefighters and police officers who are diagnosed with job-caused illnesses don’t get to test that limit – they die before it hits. But in the relatively few cases where modern medicine extends life, this outdated limit imposes a heartbreaking penalty on the survivors.
Last year, in the midst of a heated ballot campaign and under intense lobbying by special interests like the League of California Cities, Governor Brown vetoed similar legislation, citing its potential cost. With those concerns addressed, AB 1373 is back on the governor’s desk.
The Senate and Assembly votes to approve AB 1373 were overwhelming and bipartisan. Supporters included the full spectrum – from “fiscal wonks” to “big spenders.” They understood that it’s not about unions, or firefighters, or police officers. It’s about families who shouldn’t be punished because their loved one didn’t die fast enough.
With more than half a decade of public safety downsizing under our belts, California first responders are no strangers to the tight budget times. But with or without the cost figures, basic humanity suggests that spouses and children shouldn’t be forced to pay a penalty for hoping that a loved one stays around a little longer.